The Power of Lifelong Unlearning For A Generation Obsessed With Lifelong Learning

Uve Sanchez on Unsplash

Prologue: A Constant Struggle

It is rather unfortunate that, at most times, my capacity to unlearn continues to diminish as my mind hardens to a set of philosophies that many would characterize a ‘normal’ life. Also, a barrage of everyday messaging urging me to be a lifelong learner somehow does not seem to placate an already angry mind. Is learning supposed to be accretive or is it a process of creative destruction which involves unlearning old ways to create space for new ideas to flourish?

As a futurist, I cannot help but imagine a world enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is also unburdened by the lack of a formal education. A world that would reward innate skills over rote learning. As I write this, it is obvious that almost the entire breadth of human knowledge can be accessed on a smartphone. To be truly adaptable in an AI enabled world, every individual will have to be ‘uneducated’ in the ways of the old world to be able to understand fully what the word ‘education’ truly means.

I am an ABCD — An Accountant, Banker and a Confused Denizen. Most people would call me ‘educated’. Somehow, the word ‘educated’ has very a different connotation for me now. It has come to symbolize entry into a man made world where the goal is to earn and save as much money as I possibly can. Don’t get me wrong — I am not complaining. The very same ‘education’, that has a very different meaning to me now, has provided me with a very happy life. However, I cannot help but imagine a world where knowledge is pursued for knowledge’s sake-not primarily for monetary gain. That is because all the routine tasks would have been automated away.

Today, education has a narrower meaning. In most cases, it is the first step to a ‘job’. Perhaps, education can also lead to affluence and an entry into a very different world. It is a more rigid structure of learning that is based on sequential achievement of goals. That step by step progression can be anathema to the human soul. Human potential is limitless. A formal structure acts as a straitjacket. A formal education does not unleash potential. When it comes to educating the masses — a common curriculum does wonders. In an AI enabled world — that curriculum will need to be unlearned.

As I peer into the future, I am reminded of the Lewis E Platt quote — ‘Whatever made you successful in the past won’t in future’. I feel a longing to unlearn a lot of my past mistakes, become ‘uneducated’ in the ways of the old world that I find self restricting. The most urgent need is to unlearn limiting beliefs based on man made differences that attempt to divide us as opposed to uniting us as a specie.

In the future, an education should force an understanding in most people that the the power of being born a human is to be somebody who does what is needed, when is needed by the world around to the best of ability. An AI enabled world will force that behavior upon all of us. Economic prosperity should be a consequence of the process.

I write this essay to highlight my own struggles with the word ‘educated’ and to share my learnings from that conflict. My hope for all my readers is that you unlearn something everyday so that you can learn what it is to be truly alive. A banishment of all things limiting.

Step 1: Understanding The Origins of Education

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘education’ as follows:

  1. the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.
  2. an enlightening experience

Notice the second meaning talks about an ‘enlightening’ experience. It is very hard for me to say that my formal education fostered an understanding of human consciousness. It began with moulding my mindset but it has not provided a road to unleashing my true potential. In that sense, I continue to be ‘uneducated’ about what I am truly capable of achieving.

Peter Gray, in this exploration of A Brief History of Education writes:

In the beginning, for hundreds of thousands of years, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration

He explains further:

For various reasons, some religious and some secular, the idea of universal, compulsory education arose and gradually spread. Education was understood as inculcation.

A uniform system of education helped discipline masses to start working in an industrial economy. The same disciplined behavior helped students succeed as employees. Once again, this change wasn’t necessarily bad. It just did not help with unlearning old ways.

The fourth industrial revolution will fundamentally alter the fabric of human society. Success in the new economy would require unlearning old, limiting methods.

Step 2: Tabula Rasa

Now, more than ever, John Locke’s philosophy of tabula rasa comes to mind. Tabula rasa was the theory that at birth the (human) mind is a “blank slate” without rules for processing data, and that data is added and rules for processing are formed solely by one’s sensory experiences. The notion is central to Lockean empiricism; it serves as the starting point for Locke’s subsequent explication (in Book II) of simple ideas and complex ideas. If our sensory experiences are guided by a rigid curriculum, it is almost impossible for us to start looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

All creativity should once again begin with a blank slate (tabula rasa in Latin). A true teacher must teach his disciple to be a blank slate always open to learning for learnings sake — uneducated in the ways of a man made world characterized by unnecessary divisions and a zero sum game where very few win and the majority lose. In that sense, a true disciple is one who acknowledges the lack of education as an opportunity to learn more about the world outside the confines of a formal man made classroom.

Sibila con tábula rasa by Diego Velázquez

As understood by Locke, tabula rasa meant that the mind of the individual was born blank, and it also emphasized the freedom of individuals to author their own soul. This second aspect of the theory is of critical importance.

The goal of science is to seek. A relentless pursuit of answers that gives rise to even more questions-knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Why then do monetary goals overrule a thirst for knowledge?

The pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a lost art. Science has value only if it can be deployed as technology that mints money. In other words, science is a slave to money. It doesn't have to be.

Also, a nation doesn’t just need doctors, scientists and engineers. It also needs creative renegades, rebels who start their own businesses, poets and artists to grow and to develop. Once again, a fertile mind begins with a blank slate.

Step 3: From Mindset to Consciousness

It is trite to say the education of the future will begin by deconstructing the education of the past.

To an extent, a formal education breeds automatons. In the near future, one of the most ironic developments will be the rapid proliferation of Machine Learning and Artifical Intelligence (AI) which will render a lot of human jobs meaningless. In the ultimate irony of our times:

An automaton, that we give life to, will free us from being automatons ourselves

Ultimately, the new economic world order would force us to unleash our inner potential. Though this example is just a harbinger of things to come- Youtubers such as PewDiePie and Ryan (an eight year old) have a multi-million dollar networth. In an AI enabled world, leveraging technology platforms to unleash inner creativity is just the first wave of changes to the old economic order. The Non-Fungible Token (NFT) market is another symbol of a monetizing creativity on a Blockchain.

The key differentiator between man and machine is what makes a human ‘human’. AI will render an age old system of education characterized by ‘memorizing and storing information and spewing that information out on a piece of paper or an electronic device’ obsolete.

Therefore, an education of the future must prepare entire populations to reskill themselves.In other words, learning will translate into an education only if that learning promotes adaptability and openness to new ideas.

For people that love coding, the possibilities are endless. For the rest, the key to success will lie in unlocking individual potential and thereby untethering from a 9 to 5 job economy mindset. The education of the future will be about unleashing true human potential as opposed to creating employment potential.

True education should help each human being understand his/her own individual skills, competence and assess whether that skill and competence is what is needed by the world outside. Money and happiness should follow. If being educated means an adherence to a set of rules, it is better to be uneducated. The only rules we will develop in the future is to guide AI algorithms to make better decisions so that we can focusing on unleashing our creativity.

The next step in human evolution will be the journey from a changed mindset to an understanding of human consciousness. It would not come as a surprise that human beings do not utilize even a fraction of their true potential. In an economic order that rewards playing by a set of rules, it is hard for humans to rise above the game to begin to understand the true power of a human being.

As Artificial Intelligence chips away at repetitive tasks that humans have performed for centuries, the new world order will force humans to look inwards and to begin to understand true consciousness. The journey to a different level of education will begin with the greatest state of being — a state of being ‘uneducated’

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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